Kavanaugh and the Paradox of Outgrowing Alcoholic Identity, But Not Moral Culpability

    At this point, we don’t need to introduce Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court nominee so credibly accused of multiple sexual assaults, whose testimony, along with that of his chief accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, has gripped the nation.

    Many commenters have written powerfully on the impact of these events on gender relations, the reasons women may not report sexual assaults, and the symbolism of Kavanaugh for the Trump presidency.

    To those of us interested in alcohol and addiction, these events suggested further important ideas. Kavanaugh’s drinking as a youth was a major focus of Democratic Senators’ questioning of him last Thursday.

    Nothing that follows, needless to say, should be interpreted as contradicting the testimony of Dr. Ford or any other accusations. Any consequences of Kavanaugh’s past excessive drinking are on him.

    But I contend that interpreting our relationships with alcohol correctly also matters. Failing to do so causes us to misunderstand the nature of addiction and its amelioration—a misunderstanding with potentially negative consequences. With this goal in mind, here are some takeaways:

     

    1. People often outgrow youthful addictive behaviors.

    No one has claimed that the problematic drinking patterns of Kavanaugh, now 53, have continued through his later life. Per The New York TImes: “No evidence has emerged to indicate that the episodes of drinking ascribed to Judge Kavanaugh back then carried forward into his professional or family life … Friends and colleagues who have known Judge Kavanaugh in his post-college years said he drank beer socially, but none could recall seeing him drunk.” This tendency to outgrow addictive behavior is found to occur regularly, even typically.

     

    2. This doesn’t mean that addictive behaviors confined to one’s youth “didn’t count.”

    A number of Kavanaugh’s college friends and associates describe his alcoholic behavior at Yale. One fellow student said Kavanaugh’s testimony about his drinking was a “blatant mischaracterization” in terms of his frequency of becoming staggeringly drunk and blacking out, as well as being “belligerent and aggressive” when drunk. Another former Yale classmate, Dr. Elizabeth Swisher, said it would be “a lie” to say that Kavanaugh “never had a blackout” when he drank in college. “Brett was a sloppy drinker, and I know because I drank with him.”

    We need to be careful, however, about labeling young Kavanaugh an “alcoholic.” In terms of outwardly meeting societal standards, he did well in college and law school. Kavanaugh’s alcohol-fueled behavior seemingly coexisted with a prosocial part of his persona, a dichotomy described by Frank Bruni. This split allegedly hid abusive, criminal behavior, which no addiction would excuse. His problematic drinking, however, came to an end.

     

    3. Rejecting an “addict” identity matters.

    Kavanaugh clearly dislikes talking about his former drinking habits. His evasive and minimizing couching of this drinking supports accusations that he was dishonest in his answers to the Senate committee. Some people might consider his failure to declare himself an alcoholic or abstain from alcohol to be a further example of his dishonesty. Without our condoning any aspect of his character, however, it is worthwhile for us to know about his ways of moving past problem drinking. And, as I have written, avoiding such self-labeling and rejecting an “addict” identity can be helpful in this process.

    By way of contrast, Mark Judge, Kavanaugh’s best high school friend, wrote a 1997 memoir, Wasted, about his loss-of-control drinking at Georgetown Preparatory School in Maryland alongside Kavanaugh. Judge, too, has been accused of sexual assaults, including rapes.

    Judge continues to embrace his “addict” identity. He wrote the Senate Committee: “As a recovering alcoholic and a cancer survivor, I have struggled with depression and anxiety.” In terms of taking moral inventories, however, this didn’t lead him to confess to any sexual assaults he and Kavanaugh might have committed.

    His “alcoholic,” then “recovering alcoholic,” identity has accompanied him into middle age. Judge’s attorney, Barbara Van Gelder, said that Judge needs to avoid being questioned in order to maintain his health: “I told him to leave town. He is being hounded. He is a recovering alcoholic and is under unbelievable stress”—suggesting that addicted or formerly addicted people can’t be required to participate in vital legal or government inquiries. (Judge subsequently agreed to undergo FBI questioning, although he might be asked about his own alleged criminal sexual behavior.)

     

    4. There are good reasons why leaving an addiction legacy behind is more common than not.

    In an exchange with Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, whose father drank alcoholically, the senator asked Kavanaugh if he had ever blacked out. He answered, “Have you?” Klobuchar declared: “I have no drinking problem.” “Nor do I,” Kavanaugh replied. Which is currently true, but didn’t answer the question.

    Per the Washington Post: “Any acknowledgment of excessive drinking and drunkenness would help corroborate the accounts put forth by his accusers of what happened during his high school and college years. The suggestion that he was subject to blacking out could be used to show that he was in no position to know one way or the other what he had allegedly done to Ford. It could have undermined his claims of utter certainty that he never was at the gathering described by Ford.”

    Klobuchar seemed stunned by Kavanaugh’s belligerent response. (He apologized to her later.) She responded, consistent with a mindfulness model, that having an alcoholic parent made it less likely that she would be one: “When you have a parent that is an alcoholic, you are pretty careful about (your) drinking.”

    But when you are a judge and father of two young children, you are also, typically, pretty careful about your drinking. People outgrow addiction when their life contexts assist them in doing so—in fact, almost dictate that they do so.

     

    5. Outgrowing an “addict” identity is not a panacea.

    You are allowed to reject your formerly addicted self. It can be beneficial to do so in order to become a different person, and people do it all the time.

    Yet here’s the rub: You can’t absolve that self from moral culpability for sexual crimes, any more, say, than if you had drunkenly killed someone while driving as a youth.

    The confirmation process, among many other things, has been a window into the nature of alcoholism and the phenomenon of natural recovery, or “maturing out,” as well as Americans’ inability to accept such recovery.

    Unfortunately, it clouds the understanding of that process that Kavanaugh has not matured out of his arrogance and sense of entitlement in conjunction with outgrowing his problem drinking.

    • Stanton Peele

      Dr. Stanton Peele is a psychologist who has pioneered, among other things, the idea that addiction occurs with a range of experiences and recognition of natural recovery from addiction. He developed the Life Process Program for addiction (https://lifeprocessprogram.com/) and has authored many books since the 1975 publication of Love and Addiction (co-authored by Archie Brodsky).

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